‘Mutual Friends’ as Culture

I ‘friend’ and ‘follow’ on Facebook and Twitter many of my informants working in the multidisciplinary world of social entrepreneurship. It can be helpful in a number of ways. Personal profile pages on social media sites form databases for the usual information that takes up the first 10 minutes of an interview and from which class assessments can be made (education, current city, hometown city, religion, politics, etc). This is a good resource for anthropologists interested in links between social capital and digital culture, but I want to explore how Facebook’s ‘mutual friends’ groupings are data sets for anthropologists.

So I do this regular ritual on Facebook. I find someone doing something innovative in regards to new media business and philanthropy and immediately request their Facebook friendship and follow them on Twitter. My informants, they tell me, do the same thing. (I got the idea from them). I post links of enlightening new media blogs and sociotechical events that would interest my ‘friends’ of scholars, business people, and activists. I do this to save my links and to give a realtime display of my research questions and investigations. (I started doing this to mimic the practices of my informant friends.) They are doing this, I am doing this and everyone is up-to-date on what interests each other on that particular day. This practice creates a space of intellectual affinity and reflexive transparency. For an anthropological study of voracious polymaths who value innovation and discovery such as new media social entrepreneurs it is essential to stay abreast and also contribute to their intellectual curiosity.

I do this other thing too. I click on the Facebook page of one of my key informants and see the mutual friends we have. With this one key informant, we have 60 mutual friends. There are journalists, documentarians, engineers, marketers, designers, academics, philosophers, and technologists in this web of ‘mutual friends.’ John Postill encouraged us to ask if this is a public, a network, a community, a culture, or a business consortium? In an era of transnationality and affinity cultures such static categories have questionable validity. Artificial categories of ‘mutual friend’ provided by dynamic social media sites might be useful to think with when pondering the boundaries and dimensions of informant’s ‘culture’. What the FB ‘mutual friends’ is is a specific group of people with shared values and practices regarding the theory and use of social media. This praxis is updated and refreshed by the minute, debated and experimented with everyday, and forming actual world actions and communities throughout the year.

I got this NYT blog post (uploaded by my informant with 60 mutual friends) from Nick Bilton, Lead Bits Blogger for the New York Times (one of the individuals in my mutual friends web), who interviewed Maria Popova (who actually didn’t play along and refused to be my Facebook friend, noting she had to maintain a divide between personal and professional ‘friends’) who called this curatorial practice “controlled serendipity.” There is a tendency within this group of new media social entrepreneurs to view Facebook not as a place exclusively for ‘friends’ but where to ‘socially broadcast’ and influence a group of influential people. In this situation ‘friends,’ not expert aggregators, increase in importance as distributors of new news, research, and capitalist venture opportunities. I suspect they use their links to leverage to themselves soft power for future actual world endeavors. While this is interesting anthropologically, my concern is that Facebook Corporation will use their records of peer-to-peer activities to create a search algorithm more personal than Google’s, based not the metrics of links frequencies but on culture: mutual friends, values, interests, practices, and desires. If ethics are your concern please see my previous post exploring the issue of informed consent in research into individuals within socially mediated ‘mutual friends’ circles.

The method I am describing exacerbates the insincerity and impersonal functionalization of social media. It is an exploitation of the system that contributes to its demise. Most of my friends and informants who’ve been on Facebook for about two years each now just peeked over 500 friends–which is about 350 too many ‘real friends’. Facebook is now more a resource and a tool than any quantitative simulation of friendship. Thus Facebook has just entered into the population race that defined Myspace at the same time that LinkIn has emerged as a viable alternative. My hypothesis is that sincerity and the longevity of social media systems are codetermining. And the use of social media I am going to outline here is a sign of growing operationalization and decreasing ‘friendship sincerity’. This tendency might be one of the markers of the demise of Facebook domination (you heard it here first!). By mimicking the social media uses of my informants I am effectively contributing to the system’s evolution and possible failure.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

One thought on “‘Mutual Friends’ as Culture

  1. Thanks Adam, this ‘mutual friends’ business sounds really intriguing and I look forward to reading more about it.

    Re: “John Postill encouraged us to ask if this is a public, a network, a community, a culture, or a business consortium? In an era of transnationality and affinity cultures such static categories have questionable validity”.

    I’m surprised I offered such encouragement, it must have been having a bad on-air day, as in my own research on internet activism in a rapidly changing Malaysian suburb I have tried to capture both ephemeral and more lasting sets of social relations.

    For instance, I have used the old political anthropological notion of ‘action-set’ to follow the protagonists of a Turnerian social drama that broke out in the suburb after the local council approved the building of a food court on land earmarked for a police station (local people felt underpoliced and wanted more not less state surveillance). But I have also looked at the structuring processes that went into setting up and running a municipal authority from 1997 to 2009. This municipal authority won’t go away: it’s there to stay. One of the interesting aspects of socio-technical change, I would suggest, is the interplay between more permanent and impermanent social formations.

    In a recent review of the anthropological literature on the internet I have commended both Boellstorff (Coming of Age in Second Life) and Kelty (Two Bits) for taking great pains in their monographs to clarify what kinds of mediated worlds they were investigating – a virtual ‘place’ in the case of Second Life, a ‘recursive public’ in Kelty’s free software movement. I think the same applies to Facebook: it’s important to ask and try to work out in broad outline what kind of mediated world this is – and isn’t. My working assumption, with boyd and Ellison (2007) is that

    “…social network sites [are] web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site.”

    In fact, I would call Facebook a *personal* network site because the predominant social logic seems to be the personal (or egocentric) network as opposed to ‘whole’ networks such as London, Harvard or Amnesty (I understand huge geography-based networks such as London have now been banned from Facebook?).

    I’m fully behind you in your zeroing in on and tracking these ‘mutual friends’ sets of relations, but without neglecting the unique ‘logics’ of the broader socio-technical environments in which they operate: Facebook, Twitter, delicious, etc. – all these environments have their own unique characteristics that need to be brought into the analysis.

Comments are closed.